Note: I read an uncorrected proof of The Bone Season. My thanks to Bloomsbury and Wikia for the copy. I have kept this review as spoiler-free as possible, but there are some minor disclosures of elements of the book’s world and story.
The Bone Season is the first novel in a planned seven-part series (a la Harry Potter), written by Samantha Shannon while still an undergraduate at Oxford University. The series was snapped up by Bloomsbury for a reported six-figure sum, and, in the modern world, film rights were bought before the first book was published, by Andy Serkis’ company Imaginarium. It’s fair to say the hype surrounding The Bone Season has been pretty intense. So, does it live up to those incredibly high expectations?
When it comes to reviewing The Bone Season, I’ve found it very hard to decide exactly what I think about it. Reflecting on it in the days since I finished reading it, my emotions have been very mixed. The characterisation was good, but inconsistent. The adventure was fantastic. I have serious reservations about the structure of the narrative. The romance felt mis-placed. The main character is a great protagonist. There were far too many complicated invented names. I was not completely convinced by the supernatural element. But I finished the second half of the novel in one sitting.
The Bone Season is set in the year 2059, and features nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney as its protagonist. She is a clairvoyant, and therefore illegal, as the dictatorship government of Scion removes all clairvoyants from society. In the alternative history of Shannon’s world, a clairvoyance epidemic occurred during the last years of Victoria’s reign. Prince Edward (Edward VII) was afflicted by this and apparently the monarchy ended at Victoria’s death. Since then, London has remained technologically mostly as it was in the late 19th century.
So far, so good. Initially the novel seems to set out its stall as a dystopian science fiction novel, with the requisite minority group (in this case, clairvoyants) and repressive government. It was all going rather well, and I was just getting into the novel and its creepy 19th-century London setting when Shannon decides to completely change the entire novel’s flow. Suddenly, Paige is captured and whipped off to Sheol I, a ‘penal colony’ for clairvoyants set in Oxford city. For me, this is a serious weakness in the novel’s structure. There’s no time for the world to develop, no breathing room to explore the fascinating dystopia. Instead, it’s revealed in no time at all that Scion is a puppet government, actually controlled by a group of other-worldly beings called the Rephaim, who first turned up in the late 19th-century.
I just found this disappointing. All the potential in the initial setting is blown apart by this revelation. Sure, it makes for an exciting read, but considering this is supposed to be a seven-part series, some more time getting used to the world of Scion would have been much better. I wouldn’t even have minded spending the entire first novel there, but instead – boom! – it’s all shown to be fake.
Or maybe that’s just my preference for science fiction over fantasy coming out. I think partly my expectations were slightly upset by this change in tone, because I was expecting the novel to be more sci-fi than fantasy. Instead, on the sci-fi-fantasy continuum, The Bone Season is pretty far toward the fantasy side. Ignoring the clairvoyant element, we soon have two sets of creatures – the Rephaim and the Emim – who have both came from ‘the Aether’, a sort of spiritual plane that exists outside the normal world.
Nevertheless, the new setting is fantastic in its own right, regardless of my concerns about how quickly Paige (and the reader) get there. As an Oxford University applicant, I had to smile at the fun Shannon has clearly had in re-imagining Oxford as the home of the Rephaim. Quite a few colleges are referenced, and it’s amusing to imagine Britain’s oldest university having been taken over by aliens. As an aside, I would be fascinated to know what the professorship of Oxford make of it all.
After the early mad-cap chapters, The Bone Season settles down into a really well-paced and well-judged novel. Most of the characters are successfully developed, particularly Warden (a Reph) and several of Paige’s London acquaintances. There is plenty of drama and action and, as I said, I finished the thrilling second half in one sitting.
Paige is one of the main reasons for the success of the story. She is not exactly endearing, but her tough-as-nails character and rebellious attitude quickly made me identify with her. Actually, she is very similar to Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games trilogy (as is the whole book – more on that later).
The USP of the novel is, of course, the clairvoyance which, for the most part, is successful. It certainly makes The Bone Season memorable. Initially, Paige is set up as one of a tiny minority of persecuted clairvoyants, but again unfortunately the lack of time spent in London slightly spoils this effect. In Sheol I, virtually every human is voyant, so Paige suddenly becomes slightly less unique. Nevertheless, her abilities are well described and explored, and in general are not over-used. It’s just a shame that I never felt completely comfortable in the voyant world, mostly, I think, because of Shannon’s fondness for invented names. Most voyants have a name in the form —mancer (cottabomancer, hydromancer, osteomancer, etc.) which refers to their unique ability. An illustration in the front few pages lists all these and trust me, there are a lot of them. I just found Shannon’s penchant for using as many of these as possible rather annoying. What’s wrong with people’s names, after all?
It’s interesting to note that The Bone Season is definitely aimed at a slightly older audience than other novels of its ilk. Young adult fiction it might be, but that doesn’t stop Shannon including Latin inscriptions, classical music (Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, naturally) and the occasional harsh profanity. Several scenes are definitely unsuitable for the younger pre-teen bracket that other, similar novels also appeal to. However, as an older reader I enjoyed this aspect of the novel – it wasn’t dumbed down for a younger audience, which made it ultimately more satisfying and fulfilling. Shannon’s writing style is also an interesting mix of usually quite straightforward sentence structure, along with a higher vocabulary than might be expected. In the first chapter alone, there are words such as ‘abhor’, ‘hypocritical’, ‘luminous’ and ‘disorientate’, which one might not necessarily expect to find in young-adult fiction. After the first few chapters, though, I didn’t notice Shannon’s writing, which to me is the mark of a good book – the story had gripped me.
As already noted, comparisons with The Hunger Games are inescapable. I have no idea whether Shannon took inspiration from Suzanne Collins’ series, but the similarities are undeniable. Both are young-adult dystopian science fiction, even if The Bone Season leans more toward fantasy. The main characters are both strong female leads of a similar age. Both characters have one parent left, and live under repressive regimes. Both books are narrated from a first-person perspective (although I do prefer Shannon’s past tense over Collins’ present tense). In both, the main characters are ‘selected’ by the government to take part in a regular programme (the titular ‘Bone Season’ is actually Bone Season XX, a decennial event with an obvious affinity to The Hunger Games’ Reaping). There is romance in both novels, although I was not a fan of it in The Bone Season. Both characters seem to suffer from interminable injuries. And both set out on a personal journey to rebel, which ends up with them becoming leaders of a rebellion on a much larger scale. What the book is missing compared to The Hunger Games is a political subtext – I got the impression, at least from this first novel, that Shannon is more interested in simply telling a good story. But of course it is still early days for the series.
In the end, I came to this conclusion: The Bone Season could have been a great book, but there are a few too many inherent flaws that drag it down to the level of simply very good. And that, all things considered, is a pretty stunning result for a 21-year-old’s debut novel.